To HD or Not HD : The Quandry Over Podcast Quality

I have noticed a shift in the number of podcasts I subscribe to that end up on my iPod. Many shows that I have been subscribed to for several years, which adds up to numerous episodes, are no longer making onto my 80GB iPod 5G.

Playing many new video podcasts requires an additional transcode in iTunes

My old iPod supports resolutions of up to 640×480 which translates to a widescreen 640×360. Of course many video podcasts are recorded widescreen these days and 960×540 is a popular size to publish at. It is 50% of 1920x1080HD resolution and offers a good balance of bandwidth and quality. It is also compatible with AppleTV playback. It is not compatible with the older iPods unfortunately.

According to Apple’s tech note iTunes can play a variety of .mp4, .m4v, and .mov video formats encoded using either the MPEG-4 or H.264 codecs, but only provides specs for iPod Touch, iPhone 4, iPhone 3G/3GS, iPad and Apple TV. It seems the trusty old iPod Classic has been dropped from the developer support reference.

This is surprising for a couple of reasons. First, Apple still sells the Classic so there is clearly a market for it, there are still units in circulation all requiring content. I could not find any indication if the specs for video content has been updated for Classic iPods compared to the pre-Classic 5G models. So I have to assume that the video podcasts that are not compatible with my 5G will also be incompatible with Classic models.

Secondly, the old style iPods (Classic, 5G etc) are perfect portable video devices due their increased capacity. My 80GB is full of feature length movies for long trips with my son, dozens of video podcasts, music videos, as well as audiobooks, music and audio podcasts. The newer flash-based iPods simply can’t compete for carrying all my video content around with me.

Now, why all of a sudden I’m finding several of my favourite shows will not sync with my 5G? It was common for producers to push the 1.5mb/sec data rate beyond the limit and perhaps some of them have gotten lazy in their QC. But its more likely that publishers and producers are standardising on one of the newer specifications that work with the later models. This is unfortunate, but understandable. Producers have to offer the best show they can to their audience, and the increased resolution of newer devices is unquestionably better. It would be nice to have the option of a version-specific download, but that could double or even quadruple the export time and storage requirements for the publisher.

Here are a couple of tables I found that illustrate the encoding limitations of various Apple devices
Images courtesy iLounge.

table1.jpg

table2.jpg

And my podcast viewing these days is split between the iPod and the AppleTV, so i need multiple formats too. The line has to be drawn somewhere and the future of media is clearly higher definition. For now I have to transcode iPod compatible episodes directly from iTunes, which takes time and space on my media drive. Once the iPod episodes have been viewed I simply trash them, keeping only the original for later viewing.

I guess what I would really like is for a single downloaded file to contain the data up to AppleTV spec, but for the software on iTunes to be able to sync only the image required by the output requirements of the player. For example a 1280x720HD AppleTV show would be able to be played on an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and legacy iPod models because iTunes would be able to discern the target player and only sync the necessary data.

Of course I’m out of luck expecting the older iPods to ever get this support. Flash memory prices will fall and iPod Touch’s will get larger capacities making the old disk-based iPods obsolete once and for all. But as media continues to converge and we are all consuming our media in multiple location on multiple devices, I hope we start to see some intelligent software and hardware capable of offering the best possible viewing experience with player-optimised file sizes, negating the need for constant management of our media.

What do you do to manage your portable video? Do you subscribe, or publish, in multiple formats? How have your viewing habits changed? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to compare notes. I’m sure there are lots of differing opinions on this topic.

Sources:
http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/articles/comments/the-complete-guide-to-ipod-video-formats-and-display-resolutions/
http://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/specs.html

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